BBC Radio 7, 16 May 2009
Fondly remembered as one of Ealing Studios' best comedies, The Ladykillers involves a motley gang of crooks whose plan to carry out the perfect jewel robbery is foiled by a sweet old lady and her pet parrot General Gordon. The film was remade - badly - recently with Tom Hanks in the leading role.
Bruce Bedford's radio version kept close to William Rose's original script. Edward Petherbridge was suitably sinister as Professor Marcus - the old Alec Guinness role - his smooth, silky tones concealing a rapier-like intellect. His accomplices reproduced familiar stereotypes: the so-called 'major' (Donald Sinden), all rounded vowels and empty bluster; the foreign cracksman Louis (Gary Waldhorn); the spiv with loads of charm but no brains (Daniel Peacock); and the heavy with a heart of gold (Martin Herder). Although Andy Jordan's production successfully delineated each role, it was clear that none of them could function without the Professor's help. Once his perfect scheme came apart at the seams, all of them were doomed.
Set against this motley crew was Mrs. Wilberforce (Margot Boyd), who was not the little old dear of Alexander Mackendrick's original film, but rather a vigorous woman of innate common sense who soon saw through her lodgers' pretensions. Although she ended up getting away with the money, as the police inspector (Stratford Johns) refused to believe her account of the crime, we felt that she somehow deserved it; after all, she had successfully outwitted five fully grown men. The late Johnny Morris provided the voice of her parrot, which viewed all the shenanigans with total contempt.
The Ladykillers might be the blackest of all the Ealing comedies, but it nonetheless conforms to the studio's prevailing ideology, as it shows an individual triumphing against seemingly impossible odds. It follows such well-loved classics as Hue and Cry (1946) and Passport to Pimlico (1947) in depicting Britain as a fundamentally decent society, where criminals get their just deserts. However The Ladykillers goes one better in permitting Mrs. Wilberforce to keep the stolen money, and thereby vindicate Marcus' claim that no one really wanted it back anyway. Bedford's adaptation neatly subverted the complacencies of the Ealing comedy by showing how corruption could thrive even in the most genteel of environments.
Everyone thoroughly enjoyed themselves in this production, especially those anonymous souls in the sound-effects department, who came up with some truly grisly aural representations of the criminals' deaths.